Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chinese Families and the Market

I hadn't originally tended to blog about this, but it has been rattling round in my head so I figured I'd bring it up despite the article being a week and a half old.  The New York Times has an article on a Chinese ministry which is proposing a law requiring children to regularly visit their elderly parents.  I don't really think this law has a chance of succeeding, states have never been successful at enforcing these types of social policies simply through enforcement measures and punishments (altering incentives is a different kettle of fish, but not why I brought the topic up).

So, as far as the law itself goes, this is little other than a curious footnote about a changing China.  But I believe it illustrates a very important point about social evolution, and in particular, that it is still happening in the modern world.  Filial piety is a very old Chinese virtue with a centuries long past.  However, modern social pressures threaten it, even when state collapse, invasion, and Communist rule, with all its efforts to break down other social bonds, didn't succeed.

At the root of this change, I believe, are the simple forces of the market.  These types of social bonds have dissolved throughout the developed world, something akin to the need to care for grandparents would have been familiar in the days of America's founding or in Europe in times contemporary to that.  But over the last century these mores have decline wherever markets have grown in strength and come to define greater areas of our lives.  This is fully consistent with everything else I've read on historical social development, markets tend to dissolve and disrupt most of the social bonds that tie together households and communities.  This particular case in China illustrates another particular hypothesis I have, that further market integration dissolves a progressively greater number of these bonds.  China used to be one of the most heavily marketized societies before the industrial revolution took markets to breathtaking new levels, yet, confronted with new and unprecedented levels of market influence, even bonds that had formerly defied market pressures are dissolving.  The simple ineradicable logic of labor markets, mobility, individual autonomy, individual responsibility for success or failure in the market, and the transition from agrarian to urban life makes traditional Chinese filial piety an unsustainable social custom that diverges too far from market values to persist in modern China.

This isn't meant to be an argument against markets, markets I believe are on the whole good.  However, they do have a cost to them.  This cost is one of the primary areas where I part ways with modern conservatives and libertarians.  Their view of society holds up as an ideal a society that contains both the thick social bonds of household and community that characterized the past with strong markets whose forces are allowed to operate largely unchecked in order to generate great wealth.  I regard these as mutually exclusionary goals.  The stronger markets become the more the bonds that hold together communities* will be dissolved and the less force they will exert on social life.  Their idea of strong communities replacing the role of governments in a market economy is something I view as an impossibility and don't see evidence of in the historical record, markets win every time, though it may take a generation or two to allow the reward of market values over traditional values to work its effect.  Trying to impute to government the socially corrosive role doesn't seem to get sequencing right in most cases, government steps in to fill social roles that communities previously filled once the market has broken up the bonds of community and the public is demanding that someone do something, not before.  Evidence of this would take some time to go into, but I think the Chinese case is a nice modern example of this process.  I do also recognize that my theory is mutually exclusive with that of libertarians, if I am right their ideal society cannot work, if they are right, I am advocating hurtful and unnecessary policies.

*There are of course exceptions within societies that don't work this way, I've read about some groups in Africa and American Mormons may fit this category as well.  Discussing this at length would take a book, suffice it to note that I do agree that groups that can maintain strong identities and resist the fracturing tendencies of markets enjoy a number of powerful advantage in markets against others that don't share these qualities.  However, I don't believe this can be applied to a society as a whole, with a possible exception for small states that can define themselves relative to larger which isn't an option in the US, since I think it involves strong in-group out-group identifications and the ability to exclude members that don't conform, which isn't an option for the United States as a whole.


  1. I think that if you put the libertarian ideals to the limit test, you'll get something totally unworkable. Read a SF short story about that some time ago (crime, private detectives - there were only private detectives, since there was no police).

    However, in your assertions regarding China and market forces, you forget that the high mobility in the US is unprecedented anywhere in the world, and this high mobility has maybe a bigger role in disrupting the family and social connections than market has.

  2. Cornel,

    I entirely agree with you. I believe much of the social dislocation in the US is the result of market forces, and especially labor market forces. With time I'm curious to see what happens in China, their labor market remains far more restrictive than in the US, though they seem increasingly unable to maintain this.

    I should perhaps add to my definitions list, when I think of markets I think of the entire market system, including all factors such as labor and finance as well as goods markets. I realize this isn't the universal usage of the term though, so I should probably make it clearer that I intend the use in the very broadest sense.

  3. I think that you also have to be aware of the fact that the US had quite unique development patterns, with a very heterogeneous population and with a cultivated short social memory, fact that makes it more sensitive to a market system in which almost everything can be atomized and comodified.

    So, in the end, the question becomes something like: what market forces can lead to in different societies?

    Some intersting insights on this topic you can find in Francis Fukuyama's "Trust".

  4. That's a fascinating law. I don't see how it will be implemented either.
    I think one of the main problems facing modern societies is the sharing or work responsibilities between men and women. Women traditionally care for relatives in the home. These responsibilities can be shared by the relatives that are less able to work, such as the elderly, older children and disabled or the government can help. It is hard for families to stay together to share responsibilities because the working relatives often need to move and the birthrate decreases, health improves and greater investments are made in children. In other words, any disabled relatives are very very disabled and the children are too busy with school to be taking care of anyone. Only a large family would be able to care for its relatives successfully. It is no surprise China is having problems with its one child policy. In the US older people that have two female children live much longer for instance, even with the safety nets our government provides.

  5. Cornel,

    I agree that is a good question, I think it often gets ignored how greatly the market impacts society and social change and markets get treated as two distinct areas, when they tend to instead be closely linked.

    I may have to read Trust again, I read it some time ago but would probably get a lot more out of it now that I know more of the social and economic history behind it.

  6. I entirely agree that sharing of responsibilities between genders is a major problem for modern society. Related to this, I think a closely linked issue is the amount of production that occurs outside the home today. Traditionally, a lot of production occurred within the home (in many places with the women producing for market while the men produced agriculture for subsistence and taxes), today with our service economy much of it could probably be moved back into it. It would be interesting to see what this would do to society if a new norm developed for working from home, though I don't see any strong trends in this direction right now.

    In any case, I completely agree that the modern economy can't support the kind of traditional household arrangements, either in the US or China, and that this has significant effects.